Ultra training mindset, running marathons for fun (and pies).

Facebook memories can be a blessing and a curse can’t they? In recent months I’ve been hit by the poignancy of memories coming up from family I haven’t seen for nearly 2 years, big races (including group shots and sweaty hugs), events and pub trips, all of those things we can’t do currently – but there is also hope and anticipation for what we will eventually get back to, and finding out what (and who) is really important to you.

This morning the memory came up of my third marathon, April 15th 2018 (three years ago today) – and this is what I wrote about it:

“Thanks for all the good wishes today everyone. As some of you know, that wasn’t my best ever race. In fact that was my worst marathon time. Physically I was actually fine. I thought about lying and saying my hip went, but it didn’t, it was my head that went! But what the hell, I blooming well finished it and I’m proud of myself for doing that when all I wanted to do was stop. Got through the second half on pure grit and some great support from friends.”

Pre-race when I was still blissfully ignorant of what was about to happen...

Should you be a total masochist you can read more fully about exactly what went wrong here (Brighton Marathon 2018). However the short version is that I. Just. Had. A. Bad. Day… and now experience has taught me that that can just happen sometimes. This knowledge is both useful and not useful. It means I can get anxious about ‘what if I have another bad day when I have a big event on?’ but vastly overriding that anxiety is the fact that now I know this, I can prepare for the possibility of a bad day better. One thing I do now is to try to train WITH my menstrual cycle rather than completely ignoring it and following a plan like an absolute obsessive who doesn’t have a cycle. I KNOW now that the week before I get my period I am weak as a freaking kitten, am liable to start fights and more likely to want to cry into a big plate of carbs than go out and boss a long run. Soon as I get my period power up, I’m 6′ 4″ and bullet proof again and can go out and smash that workout like I’m She-Ra. I’ve been reading a lot (ok that’s a lie right off, I don’t seem to have the concentration or time to sit and read actual physical books at the moment, what I’ve really been doing is listening to podcasts and audio books) about this recently and it really feels like the way forward. I plan my drop down mileage week to coincide with hell-week (or weak-week?) and it’s worked really well.

Anyway back to that bad day… I thought about it a lot this morning seeing that memory, and felt compassion for that version of myself that thought about lying about a physical injury or stomach problem because I was ashamed of the fact that my head just wasn’t in it and I didn’t do a “good” time. I remember crying from 13 miles because it just felt so hard, and accepting a wet wipe that total stranger pulled from his shorts for me to blow my nose on because I cut such a pathetic figure. Which was admittedly, super gross, but this was pre-pandemic, so shorts tissues were ok. I feel SO differently about it all now.

On Sunday I ran my 6th marathon. There was no medal and t-shirt, no bib number or crowd support, no goodie bag other than what me and my buddy Gemma made for ourselves and stuck in the back of our cars for afterwards! It took us ALL DAY – and while we had company for most of it, a little group for the first 6 miles and then our friend Sean for 15 – the last bit was just me and Gemma doing an out and back up the ring road, checking every 2 minutes to see if we could turn back yet. It was a bizarre day weather-wise – we were all wearing shorts because it was gorgeously sunny at the start, and then it suddenly started ACTUALLY freaking SNOWING. Or some kind of really weird snow/hail hybrid that looked like polystyrene. We learnt not to stop for TOO long at mile 16 because starting up again with another 10 miles still to go, cold and miserable was pretty horrible.

The weird thing is thinking about it now a few days later is that another thing I’ve learnt is that I have to trick myself into running sometimes (my old therapist would probably have a field day with this and we’d spend 3 sessions talking about it, like that one time I put the wrong year on a cheque), but I almost have to give myself permission NOT to run a crazy distance before I can do it. We did loops of 6 miles, 10 miles and then two 5 mile runs. At each stage I had to tell myself I could stop after this bit if I wanted to – but deep down knowing I probably wouldn’t. One of my main running buddies knows me so well that he just laughs at me when I say I’m going to stop “after this bit” because he knows full well that I nearly always do the distance I’ve set out to do. But I can only do it if I tell myself I don’t HAVE to.

So why were we putting ourselves through this? Because in three and a half weeks we’re going to be doing our first Ultra Marathon.

For those who don’t know, an Ultra is basically anything over the regular marathon distance of 26.2 miles. There are mad multi day events, 50, 100 mile Ultras etc, but the one we’re doing is the Goring Gap Ultra and it’s 50K – or 32 miles. So definitely a challenge, but not a HUGE jump in terms of actual mileage… the difference for me is the attitude and the style of running for ultras.

When we were thinking about it, several friends and Ultra enthusiasts, described it as a moving picnic, which definitely added to the appeal. But it’s just so different to training for a road marathon. Part of the pressure I’ve found for road marathons after the first one is that idea (purely in ones own head, I’m sure no one else cares) that you *should* be getting faster and fitter for each subsequent one. For the first marathon, for me personally I TRULY believe that the time shouldn’t matter. It’s just you vs the distance. Achieving that is HUGE and puts you in that 1% of people who complete a marathon, regardless of whether it takes you 3 or 6 hours. But then after that first one, when some of us get the bug and want to keep doing more, there’s a pressure to get a PB. I lopped 20 minutes off my time on my second marathon, and my PB is nearly 30 minutes faster than that first one… but now… I don’t know if it’s lockdown, age, experience or the difference in Ultra training – but I couldn’t give less of a shit about times anymore. If I do Manchester marathon in October, which I am planning to, I’m just going to enjoy it. I kind of feel like sub 4:30 is as fast as I’m going to get, and I’ve done that, and it was hard. I would have to sacrifice a lot and work harder than my 46 year old body wants to these days to hit the next milestone you know?

With a regular road marathon (and trail marathons or challenges like Snowdon marathon are not included in this idea!) the idea is to start running and try and maintain a sustainable pace until you get to the end of the 26.2 miles. You don’t stop unless you desperately need a portaloo. You don’t stop for snacks, you chuck a disgusting gel down your face every so often and try not to let it bounce straight back out again (and you definitely avoid ill thought out blackcurrant caffeine ones or even worse a ginger one that had me doing gingery burps for 13 miles). You pause for as short a time as possible at the water stations and get annoyed if you are delayed by anything, because the goal is to do it as quickly as possible!

Contrast this with how I’m training for this Ultra – we walk up hills, or just if we feel like it. We take 10 minute breaks and share a pre-cut pork pie and other REAL foods (fairly constantly) we take all day over running a marathon distance (no kidding we started at 9 am and didn’t finish till nearly 4. We were running for 5 and half hours of that, so you can see how long we took for breaks!). Our aim for this Ultra is to just finish it. It’s so much more relaxed! And I don’t feel broken after the training runs even though prior to this I’d never run over 20 miles other than in the actual marathons (of which this was the 6th).

16 miles = Surprise pork pie (or Sur-pies!)

So wish us luck, we’ll be out there, enjoying running a ridiculously long way just for the hell of it on the 16th of May. And now that I’ve broken my ridiculously long silence, I will probably write a blog about it afterwards too. I might even just publish all of the half started lockdown blog posts – or just publish them as a super boring novel. Bet you can’t wait.

Ok I DID give myself a medal…

1 thought on “Ultra training mindset, running marathons for fun (and pies).”

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